Genealogists often find it useful to know what laws were in effect in a particular location at the time an ancestor lived there, research that may mean delving into a combination of federal, state, and local laws. To that end, statutes can be a good starting point for tracing the legislative history of a particular law. The word statute
refers to a law passed by a state legislature or federal government (e.g. U.S. Congress, British Parliament) sometimes called legislation
or enacted law
. This is in contrast to case law
, which is a record of written opinions issued by judges in deciding cases, an important part of the common law legal system in force throughout much of the United States (except Louisiana), Canada (excluding Quebec), Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, most of India, Pakistan, South Africa, and Hong Kong.
In addition to understanding how the law may have affected the lives of our ancestors, published statutes also contain private laws which directly name individuals and may provide other information of historical or genealogical value. Private acts are laws which apply specifically to individuals or groups of individuals rather than everyone within a governmental jurisdiction, and may include early name changes and divorces, authorizations to build something or collect a toll, formation of a specific township or church, land grant disputes, petitions for monetary relief such as pension claims, requests for exemption from immigration restrictions, etc.
Types of Statutory Publications & Their Uses
Legislation at both the federal and state level is generally published in three forms:
- as individually issued slip laws, published immediately after passage of a law. Slip laws are the first official text of laws, or statutes, enacted by the legislative body of a jurisdiction.
- as session laws, the collected slip laws that have been enacted during a particular legislative session. Session law publications publish these laws in chronological order, by the legislative session in which they were enacted.
- as compiled statutory codes, compilations of laws of a permanent nature currently in force for a specific jurisdiction, published in a topical or subject arrangement (not chronological). Code or statutes volumes are periodically updated with supplements and/or new editions in order to reflect changes, e.g. addition of new laws, changes in existing laws, and deletion of repealed or expired laws.
Compiled or revised statutes are often the easiest way to begin to narrow down the period when a law change took effect, and will usually reference the session law enacting the change. Session laws are then the most useful for continuing research into the historical evolution of an area of law.
Determining the Laws in Effect at a Certain Time & Place
Although federal and state statutes and session laws, both current and historical, are fairly easy to access, locating a specific statutory law in effect at a certain period and place can be a little difficult. Generally, the easiest way is to begin with the most recent version of the compiled or revised statutes, whether federal or state, and use the historical information generally found at the end of each statute section to work your way back through prior enacted laws.